Facilitating good relationships in online groups

Good meetings get work done and build relationships among group members.  When I talk to people about what they want to achieve in meetings they usually mention both:  they want to get a result in terms of work, but they also want to reconnect with colleagues, tackle difficulties and disputes, and move forward as a team.

Meeting virtually affects how you get work done and how groups build relationships.  If you are a facilitator, chair or meeting organiser it helps to have both goals in mind as you plan, deliver and reflect on virtual meetings.

One-off events

Some events bring together a group of people only once – such as a task and finish group, a meeting to bring together diverse stakeholders, or a multi-agency briefing.  These groups need enough participation and connection to do the job, but may not need to go deeper.  It’s useful to help the group find quick connections.  For professional meetings consider whether it is appropriate to ask them to share personal details: the ‘level of permission’ you have from the group.

If organisations are competitors more than collaborators, their representatives may be reluctant to share commercial information.  People or their organisations may have previous negative experiences of working together.  Keep the connection light: ask them about the weather where they are, what they can see out of the window, and their professional roles.

It is helpful to use questions to guide this type of discussion, focusing on issues such as opportunities and barriers.  If conflict or differences of opinion arise, consider whether to address them in the moment or take them off line.  Asynchronous activity may encourage group members to build understanding and there may be bilateral contacts.  Whatever the meeting produces – for instance a prioritised list of actions – should be treated as indicative as there may not be firm commitment from all.

At the close of the event invite people to comment on the process and outcomes.

Building relationships over time

Other events bring together different organisations or teams to collaborate for a common purpose over time.  Here the approach can be different. We spend time asking people to introduce themselves and offer opportunities for group discussion with different ‘mixes’ of participants.  In principle during the early meetings each individual should get to know each other.  Here the ‘level of permission’ is higher and should be explicitly confirmed with the group:  are they prepared to explore not just the subject matter they will be discussing but also ways of working together?

We like to help the group think through what type of relationships will be most helpful.  Are they seeking to become a collaborative team or a connected network of independent parties?   Are there distinct roles within the group?  Are there sub-groups such as subject specialists working on particular themes?

People are likely to bring with them different cultural assumptions about teams and meetings.  This may include the basics of working online – microphone on or off? Webcam on or off?  Who uses the chat? Beyond the immediate, maybe hierarchy is a consideration and even if participants want to work together on equal terms, different professional languages and assumptions may get in the way.  Academics work very differently from marketing professionals or operations managers.

We find it helpful to invite the group to agree ways of working (ground rules) – for instance respecting different views, allowing others to make their point without interruption – and make sure that the ways of working are respected in practice.  It is good to draw different ways of working from within the group – for instance, ways of sharing information, meeting styles and length, style and formality / informality.

Of course, relationships develop over the lifetime of a group – people get to know each other better, conflicts emerge and are resolved, alliances appear and evolve.  The facilitator or meeting leader can support the group by allowing the relationship to play out and evolve.  Encourage group members to reflect on the state of relationships from time to time and address issues and underlying assumptions.

It would be good to have your thoughts on creating and sustaining good relationships online.

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